Indonesia : 01 May – 23 Jul 2015

Our plan for Indonesia was to follow the surf along the south coast via the typical overlander’s island hopping route: West Timor – Flores – Sumbawa – Lombok – Bali – Java – Sumatra. With over 17,000 islands – 6,000 of which are inhabited – and hundreds of native groups, this archipelago seems more of a kingdom than a country.

Provinces of Indonesia

Provinces of Indonesia

Our Route through Indonesia

Our route: West Timor – Flores – Sumbawa – Lombok – Bali – Java – Sumatra


Indonesian borders are where Dutch colonial rule extended to in the early 20th century. The Dutch lost control of the region to the Japanese occupation during World War 2, which reinvigorated a previously supressed Indonesian independence movement. Conflict with the Netherlands ensued after the war… but the Dutch finally acknowledged Indonesian independence in 1949 following international pressure.


Entry into Indonesia went smooth via the land border crossing from Batugade, East Timor to Atapupu, West Timor. We anticipated the continuation of harsh riding in the eastern reaches of Indonesia but the difference is night and day crossing the border. We were blown away by the quality of the roads… perfect bitumen, fabricated steel bridge structures, all the right road furniture including signage, safety barricades, etc… roads even wide enough for 2-way traffic to pass at speed… everything you’d expect from home. Roads pass through tricky terrain and it genuinely looked like some high quality road engineering design went into it, which was not expected at all.

Turns out Indonesia is the largest recipient of Australian “aid”, currently running to the tune of about $650 million per year. This included the recently completed Eastern Indonesia National Roads Improvement Project where Australia provided concessional loans ($300 million) for construction works and supervision coupled with additional funds ($36 million) for design and auditing. Bring your Harley or your super-sports bike or whatever bike you want… bit of work muscling our girls about but we had an absolute PEARLER of a time wrapping around mountains, winding through valleys and hugging coastlines… the best blacktop riding we’ve ever done.

We didn’t know what to expect with the ferries but they were a breeze… roll on roll off. Someone had the bright idea of letting Karaoke girls cut loose with their Indo music for entertainment on some ferries… as loud as they can… did I mention on a boat? There aren’t words for the awful of Indo music.

We were pretty keen to get surfing so we blitzed our way from the border through to Sumbawa. We still made the effort to check out some of the sites, including Kelimutu Three Colour Lakes… but we don’t often get lucky with the golden hour. We regret not making the effort to see the Komodo Dragon… a good lesson to not be in such a rush… don’t want to miss prehistoric stuff like that!

We encountered one particularly unnerving incident shortly after Kelimutu where Laws wiped out a copper on her motorbike in Ende, Flores. As Laws had glanced down to his faltering GPS, the copper in front broke suddenly to turn (indicators don’t get used for turning in Indo)… Laws managed a big swerve but his right pannier clipped her motorbike and put her on her side… and holy moly did she create a scene. It took seconds for a large mob to form and then surprisingly within minutes there were 20+ coppers… turns out we were one block away from the main cop shop. All I could think of was: 1) how long will Laws be in lockup; and 2) how much are we going to have to pay. I had it all wrong… the coppers were professional and pleasant throughout… once our documentation (passports, visas, carnets, licenses) was verified they were more interested in our bikes and our trip. We were free to go after the hospital confirmed that the swiped copper was fine… certainly not what we expected after the scene she made.

The first surf break we got to was Lakey Peak, Sumbawa… a ridiculous place for us to be… I’m a beginner and Laws is intermediate at best. We were about to head straight out front but fortunately we got chatting with Koby Abberton… nice bloke and real interested in our endeavour. He quickly gave some advice: go out front and we’ll be going home… waves were double overhead breaking on reef. After more chats with this bloke I looked him up online… turns out he’s a big deal in surfing… wish we took him up on that lesson dammit.


As a non-surfer the highlight of Lakey Peak was the Puppy Hideaway I found… I love dogs 🙂 Islamic legal tradition warns Muslims against contact with dogs… generally dogs are believed to be unclean and impure… they are certainly not allowed to be kept as pets although exceptions are sometimes made for guard dogs. Unfortunately this belief system has translated to the abuse and neglect of dogs, even though cruelty contradicts the Koran’s view. So the dogs that you see running loose about the place… respect to them for surviving.


Learning to surf as an adult is a predominantly low experience with a few teaser highs mixed in to keep you going… it gets better but not before a whole lot of ocean fighting. Easily the number one battle is crowds… like anything if you can’t get a go then you don’t get any better. Surfing has a pretty bleak looking future… it’s not like other sports… if more people want to play footy then more footy fields get built. Surf breaks are finite and all pretty much discovered. There was probably a sweet spot in time 10-20 years ago where crowds were light and the vibe was good… apparently 5-10 out at a time with everyone respecting etiquette. Now it’s pretty normal to have 20-30 people sitting at the one break with frowny faces… crowds make people narky.

Nonetheless surfing is worth persevering for. You just need to get your mindset right heading in… keep your expectations super low. You’re not going in to ride waves… you’re going in for some exercise… PLENTY of paddling and a heap of breath-hold practice in a human washing machine where relaxing is key… and did I mention mostly paddling? You also get to watch experienced surfers with mixed emotions of hatred and admiration as they rip wave after wave not even getting their hair wet. I read somewhere that salt water fixes everything: sweat, tears and the ocean… so no matter how crap you are, you still get out of the water feeling FANTASTIC albeit smashed. The breaks we visited were:

  • Lakey Peak, Sumbawa
  • Yoyos, Sumbawa
  • Inside Gerupuk and Tanjung Aan, Lombok (most learning done there)
  • Old Man’s, Canggu, Bali
  • Krui, Sumatra
  • Nias, Sumatra

If I was a superstitious person I would have quit trying to surf pretty close to the start. I was plagued with incidents… some very much a result of my own retardation… but others where all I could do is lie back, look at the sky and wonder HTF? We were also in places with NOT conditions to learn to surf coupled with no availability of decent learner boards. You catch waves all day on a 7’2 – 7’6 minimal or fun board… but they don’t exist outside of Bali and Lombok. Rock up with no boards wanting to surf and you will get the look of, “… sooooo what are you doing here?” I persevered and was rewarded with those moments… mostly more suffering ensued but I still got to experience those moments. When negativity set in I just needed to teach the ocean how to swear, take a time-out and look around… Indonesian surf breaks (not so much Bali) are spectacular.


The other thing with surfing… time vanishes. Outside of a couple sessions each day it is an idle and lazy lifestyle… most surfers would happily run with that for the rest of their lives. Two weeks at a break vanishes… I got to the point of, “Ok, I need to do some work.” On certain shoulders an idle mind can be a dangerous thing… always stuff on the bike you can mess with 🙂


As we rode through Indonesia we quickly gained an appreciation for the two worlds: 1) surf breaks where allowances are made for tourism; and 2) Muslim Indonesia. Bintang is openly available and kept cold in World 1… whereas it’s only available through secret squirrel channels in World 2. There are many other differences but this one stood out the most to us. As of earlier this year, Indonesia has restricted the sale of beer and pre-mixed drinks to large supermarkets only and outlawed sales in it’s >70,000 small retailers… hotels, restaurants and bars in World 1 are unaffected. Ultimately Islamic parties want a total ban on drinking, which I reckon is fraught with disaster… if you limit the controlled alcohol market you will create the nightmare of a black market.


I should also mention that magic mushrooms are now illegal in Indonesia. As of 2014 the law changed to include the psilocybin mushroom as a type one narcotic… and as of January 2015 there is no more tolerance… many people do not know this. It’s a bloody shame… the Balinese in particular had shrooms nailed… I’m talking commercial operations hundreds of square metres in size producing THE MOST AMAZING psilocybin mushroom. Like other drugs it’s still easily obtainable… travellers just need to be aware that if they get caught then they’re in the same boat as marijuana and they’ll be paying out local coppers a lot of money.


While on the topic of drugs and the law… I might as well bring up the execution of Andrew Chan and Myruan Sukumaran, which took place on 29 April 2015… a HOT TOPIC coinciding with our entry to the country. They were convicted in 2006 for attempting to smuggle 8.3kg (AU$4 million) of heroin into Australia from Bali. Australia’s reaction to this event made us look stupid to Indonesia. We handed the traffickers over to Indonesian authorities with full knowledge that conviction would bring the death penalty… now 10 years later we’re kicking up a stink not to carry out the expected sentence… but only after we insisted that the death penalty be implemented for the Bali bombing terrorists. To top it all off, as a nation we praised these guys as heroes… to be fair, by all accounts they were genuinely reformed… but the fact that they were standover men in heroin distribution almost didn’t get a mention.

I’m an annoying fence-sitter with respect to the death penalty. People who prey on children should die… terrorist bombers should die… plenty is clear cut for me… but as you wind down the severity of the offence, where does the line get drawn between life imprisonment and the death penalty??? I got no idea. Regardless, it was obvious that Andrew Chan and Myruan Sukumaran never had a chance. President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, took office in October 2014 and clearly articulated that he will never give clemency… he wants it understood that the death penalty sentence is from the courts and is not given by the president. He has a reputation as a reformist but nonetheless he has taken this hard line on anti-drug laws further ramping up his rhetoric about the country’s drug emergency. This stance is straining Indonesia’s relationships with the rest of the world but the perception on the ground in Indonesia is that the drug situation is one of the country’s worst problems next to corruption… making Jokowi very popular.


The astonishing figures used by the Jokowi administration to justify the claim of a drug emergency are based on dodgy statistics… ultimately the Jokowi administration needed to justify a politically convenient policy… but that’s fine. What gets me is that if the government truly wanted to make a difference to the health and well-being of the people then they would apply the same logic to the smoking emergency. The government’s statistics claim that 18,000 people die each year due to their illicit drug use… sooooo what about the >200,000 people who die from smoking each year?!?! There is an epidemic of nicotine addiction amongst the country’s children yet Indonesia is the only country in the Asia Pacific region that has not signed or ratified the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Tobacco companies have complete freedom in Indonesia. What’s going on there you reckon?

We had tobacco advertising plastered in our faces EVERYWHERE. Every single little store gets a free fancy sign from tobacco companies to hang out front… so streets are literally lines of advertising. People EVERYWHERE are chain smoking… kids are openly sold cigarettes. Three in four adult males smoke and a higher percentage of youths smoke in Indonesia than anywhere else in the world. Unfortunately for us, driving happens to be the perfect opportunity to coordinate a mobile phone call and a cigarette. They LOVE their clove-flavoured Kreteks, an ingrained part of their culture. When having a chat with the locals we would usually get offered a smoke and they would look shocked when we declined… it was as though we lost some respect because if you’re a real man you smoke all day… and load all food with maximum chilli. The smoking crisis explains Indonesian cuisine… taste buds are shot so use of sugar and chilli is staggering.


Not cool and AMAZING. I knocked out the table below because I’m a nerd… it puts the population density along the route into some perspective… red numbers indicate EXACTLY where the rubbish riding is on our route… Jakarta numbers will blow you away… 40 times more crowded than Brisbane! Air cooled big singles don’t like these places… not to mention market places. If you want to setup a typical Indonesian market place, you need to find the busiest arterial road you can… knock up all the stalls either side… somehow pinch even more of the arterial road to provide parking… and VUALA!… Indonesian market place.

Population Density Table

There is of course AMAZING riding on these islands: south coast of Lombok, the not southern part of Bali and mountainous regions of Java. The challenge for RTW motorbiking is to find routes that provide great riding AND progress the journey… not possible on these islands… you need to make side trips for the great riding and the progress riding is mostly painful traffic. Best bet is to beeline between the magic spots.


It was super interesting hanging out with blokes from various bike clubs, including the Scorpios and the big bike club in Yogyakarta. The main thing a rider needs to be wary of is the fact that INDONESIANS DO NOT EVER LOOK BEHIND. It does not matter how random or unpredictable their next movement will be… indicators don’t get used for turning and THEY WILL NOT LOOK. This is daunting because you spend a lot of time on overtake. The big bike club got this sussed… as a minimum bikes have three pairs of spotties, truck horn and/or police siren and blue/red strobe lights… they make sure their presence is known.

In all seriousness your number one safety device is your horn… if people don’t hear your horn they do not know you’re there. A truck wiped me out… the driver must have spotted a pothole at the last moment and went hard right hand down the exact moment I was on overtake… knocked me into the pavement diaphragm first… pinky side of my right hand is still buggered. It was a fantastic reality check… easy to think you’re pretty deadly riding round the world but at the end of the day you’re just another vulnerable road user (pedestrians, motorcyclists and cyclists)… and 90% of Indonesia’s 40,000 road traffic deaths are these guys.

Road pirates are a thing. On our route it was only an issue in some parts of Lombok and the south-western corner of Sumatra… DO NOT get caught out night riding in these areas. Pirates will rope off unsuspecting riders… even leave obstacles on the road to bring cars to a stop. When we were in Gerupuk a local got robbed a few km out of the village… it got announced over the mosque radio and within a minute every bloke from the village was either on his bike or loading into a vehicle… I’ve never seen so many unorthodox machetes. The important thing is that Indonesia is a safe country… but like anywhere in the world it’s still important to get an up-to-date headsup from locals before diving into things.


Entering Sumatra was a relief… with Java behind us we could feel the blood pressure drop. Apart from major centres, riding through Sumatra is a joy. Islands off Sumatra’s west coast are also home to surf breaks that give perfection all day every day… we squeezed in 10 days on Nias Island.

After missing the Komodo Dragon we thought we’d better not miss the Orangatang… so we did the jungle thing in North Sumatra. Best Safety Brief ever: “Ok guys, it’s all pretty safe in there… the animals are pretty harmless… except for one. If I say run I am not joking, ok?” Sweet. After the Orangatang my favourite animal is the least favourite animal, the Macaque Monkey… they’re considered a pest and have the worst reputation throughout Asia… but I think that’s because of their resilience… they thrive anywhere! They live in large social groups and are just plain funny to watch… I wouldn’t want to be another monkey with gangs of them in the neighbourhood.


Due to a combination of political, education and religious issues… people in Indonesia do not see POLLUTION as a problem. On the small scale RUBBISH IS EVERYWHERE… there is always a burning rubbish pile not far away to scent the air (most people have learnt not to burn plastic). Littering is a pet hate of mine and watching rubbish thrown from vehicles all day gets a bit grating… but the people don’t know any better. On the large scale there is the elephant in the room… HAZE from burning peatland forests… first thing we noticed entering Sumatra. The fires produce around 40% of Indonesia’s overall greenhouse gas emissions… the main contributor to the nations third largest polluter in the world status. What blew us away is that the people weren’t phased by it… the mass deforestation started back in the 70s so I guess people are just used to it.

The composition of haze is dependent on the source… smoke stacks, automobiles, etc… turns out the burning of peatland forests might produce the worst kind of haze. Peatlands are the accumulation of organic material over thousands of years on wet soils… the wet soil prevents full decomposition. The more accumulation – the more water is retained through capillary action… basically a giant sponge holding moisture. Peat layers are commonly over 4m thick and can be as thick as 15m. Most rainforests in Borneo and Sumatra are distributed on peatlands… and are considered an unproductive hindrance to growth and development. Clearing commonly makes way for the world’s $50 billion palm-oil industry… rubber plantations, timber and pulp industries are other culprits. Before clearing is possible, channels need to be excavated to allow drainage… the diagram below shows the drainage effects on a peatland dome.


Peatlands are basically giant carbon sinks… with human involvement they’re giant carbon bombs. The greenhouse significance lies in the fact that they can store up to 20 times more carbon than rainforests on normal mineral soils… the actual forest on top is only about a tenth of the carbon store. More than half of Indonesia’s peat forest cover is already lost… around 10 million hectares remain… quickly degrading and on a trajectory of fire.

Oliverlyc (from Wikimedia Commons) made these maps showing the extent of the Southeast Asian haze in June 2013. Wind direction is shown by the grey arrows. Red dots indicate a haze source (hotspot). The red encirclement indicates areas where the haze is the thickest, while the orange encirclement indicates areas where the haze is significantly thick.

Factory and vehicle emissions are well understood but peat smoke not so much… the fire is a low-heat slow-burning kind producing finer-grained particles than normal forest fires… so penetration into humans is more significant. Needless to say Indonesia’s relationship with Malaysia and Singapore has been strained over the issue for a long time. Indonesia only just signed ASEAN’s 2002 trans-boundary haze agreement late last year… the agreement is non-binding but there’s a fair bit of other political activity surrounding the issue. Will there be change?… no comment.


Unfortunately it was Ramadan for our time through Sumatra. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, which is based on the lunar cycle… in 2015 it was 18 June – 17 July. During Ramadan Muslims are supposed to abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and anything ill-natured or excessive… from dawn to sunset. It is a time to cleanse the soul and focus attention on God… the abstinence (or fasting) is intended to teach spirituality, humility and patience. Some take it all pretty seriously… some do not. Lebaran is the celebration that comes at the end… and sees the mass exodus of people back to their villages… don’t try moving during this time. Does not matter where you are there is a mosque close at hand to deafen you with prayers throughout the days… not a good idea to have those prayers translated… they’re sometimes not very nice toward people who don’t believe in the true God.


Anyone want to take 20 years of their retirement age? This is a hot topic among surfers, especially Aussies: buy land at an Indonesian surf break… build a villa / homestay / small business… retire. Simple right? We met many foreigners in the process of making it happen. Acquiring land in Indonesia is a minefield… there are happy stories, horror stories and everything in between. When it comes to domestic land title, Indonesia has a grey set of laws designed to keep land for nationals. For foreigners there are three types of land title: 1) Hak Milik; 2) Hak Pakai; and 3) Hak Sewa.

The first is like freehold but ownership is not possible for a foreigner. The second is a 25 year contract between buyer and government where all rights to the land are forfeited at the end (usually renewed for a second 25 years)… often used for apartments. The most common is the third, which is negotiated directly with the land-owner… the foreigner will use power of attorney over the person believed to be the land-owner.

There is a lot of legal mumbo jumbo spieled by investing foreigners… loop holes and technical contracts that try to give legal rights to own a property… but the truth is they don’t give you any more right to owning property. At the end of the day the intent of the law is that only Indonesians can own property… period. What matters is: 1) the land certificate; 2) power of attorney arrangement with your nominated Indonesian national; and MOST IMPORTANTLY 3) your relationship with your nominated Indonesian national… and remember: it’s easy to buy, difficult to exit.


We don’t claim to have embraced Indonesian culture… that would mean embracing Islam and we’ve got about as much chance of that as embracing Christianity. Actually, Christianity still does cold beer so more chance of that one. Still, we got plenty of insight into Indonesian culture… people were very nice to us… they were welcoming and super interested in why the heck we were there. I think that maybe Indonesians only get exposed to Australians in three locations: 1) couple of thousand expats mostly in Jakarta… there are a few hundred Australian companies operating in Indonesia; 2) bloody Bali; and 3) surf breaks… with around a million visits annually for the latter two. Everywhere outside of those three areas the reaction to us was a consistent WTF, especially at the fuel bowser holding up the queue as we dropped bulk fuel into our 35L tanks (typical Indo scoop tank is 3-5L).

It made me wonder about the Australian – Indonesian relationship… Laws and I aren’t travelling in some far flung back block part of the world… we’re right next-door! Outside of the three areas I mentioned above, Indonesians have pretty much zero exposure to Aussies. I’m having a stab at numbers here but we’re talking maybe 95% of the Indonesian population (240 million people) having a perception of Aussies determined purely by media. Conversely, in the 2011 Australian Census 63,000 people listed their country of birth as Indonesia… 40% of them Australian citizens, 25% student and 20% listing their religion as Islam… not even remotely close to being a representation of Indonesians at home.

Point I’m trying to make is that this is one of the most oddball relationships… neighbouring countries nearly everywhere else in the world have a relationship at population level on the ground. In our case there are geographical and religious divides leaving a relationship almost purely at political level. Heidi would go all John Lennon for sure and say, “Imagine no religion?”… remove the fear… I think we would be much better friends too 🙂

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No matter how large or small, your support will enable critical research to be undertaken at QIMR. The health of your family and friends could one day depend on the breakthroughs being made by researchers at QIMR. Thank you for your generosity.

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